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  • Writer's pictureAllen Crater

The Stranger

Updated: Jul 1

Two fly fisherman making casts in a river

We were due.

I know it's presumptuous to believe a river owes you something, but I did, and could make a strong argument the sentiment was justified. This particular piece of water had been giving our group fits lately.

We'd fished it when the conditions appeared perfect and even on those high-pressure, bluebird days, because we honestly just didn't know anymore. We'd waded it during prolific evening hatches when all the bugs in a ten-mile radius were gathered on the water, and we'd thrown streamers from the drifter on drizzly afternoons – every size, color, and configuration in the box. We'd tested proven spots and worn out our arms casting to new covers. But lately we didn't have much more than bruised egos to show for our efforts.

It was one of those streaks that made me wonder if there were any fish in this fickle river at all and caused me to foolishly run calculations on the gas, gear, hours, and sanity I'd invested into empty nets, sore shoulders, and Marlboros. The kind that made me consider, in a moment of rashness, selling everything and taking up a new hobby, like pickleball or birdwatching. Or maybe just giving it all away to some poor sap on the side of the road. And if I had been the only victim, I'd surely have quit long ago. Hung it up. Ceased, concluded, discontinued, dropped, halted, resigned, suspended, terminated, withdrawn, and all the other words for wave the white flag. But I wasn't. It seemed this river had no love left for any of us these days.

To fly fisherman standing by a drift boat in a river

So, like MJ or Kobe would have, Jason and I had determined to shoot our way out of the slump; we just weren't in an overwhelming hurry to get on the court. We met at 7 AM Friday morning, and sorted gear for a lot longer than we needed to, then slowly rambled our way to a local diner and enjoyed breakfast at a leisurely, senior-citizens-discount kind of pace. After a warm week, temperatures had drastically dropped and we were sure it was going to shut everything down, just in time for our scheduled fishing weekend. I was in the perpetual state of procrastination my wife sometimes refers to as "mowing-the-lawn-mode," where I find anything and everything to do other than actually putting blade to grass.

We eventually resigned ourselves to the abuse we were sure to endure. At least it will be a pretty float – a rote recital that had worn as thin as cheap carpet this season. Our pace on the way to the familiar launch didn't exactly demonstrate a sense of urgency either – just a couple of ole Sunday drivers cruising the backcountry roads taking our sweet-ass time. Only fools rush in, they say, and while my fishing partner and I have never been mistaken for geniuses, history has proven we can be taught.

Sometime around eleven or so we finally shoved off. The morning was cloudy and cooler, with a hint of humidity. Better than the forecast had foretold. Conditions that would normally spark at least a little optimism. But we understood the ramifications of saying such things out loud and kept any hopes of success to ourselves – buttoned up and tightly tucked away.

I began in front, opting to get my visit to the principal's office out of the way first. Jason was content to row and sadistically watch as I flailed and floundered, smoked and swore. There were no feeding fish, so I tied on a small streamer and began to work the wood-strewn banks with the absent enthusiasm of a seven-year-old boy dragged along to a classic, Victorian-era literary lecture.

fly fisherman holding a brown trout

But my third cast produced a promising follow, and I began to sit up a little straighter and pay more attention in the lecture hall. Two casts later I came tight on a brightly spotted brownie. Okay, okay. Let's not get too excited. I offered to switch Jason up, but he waved me off, and a handful of casts later I was into another decent fish. Something definitely felt different about the day. Could it be? I didn't even dare let the thought cross my mind, let alone utter anything out loud, for fear of getting busted by the all-knowing river. Jason hopped up front, tied on a streamer of his own, and a short while later was into his first fish. Great green goddess on a salad! Our fishing was off to a ridiculous start.

You should have been here yesterday. It's a familiar phrase among anglers, and one I've had the distinct pleasure of hearing when another of my ilk spies me gazing in blank bewilderment at the sky or contemplating my life choices and the dark mysteries of the currents from a grassy bank. But for Jason and me, today was that day, and we were here.

It was one of those rare-as-two-foot-trout-sipping-size-twenty-dries occurrences when everything, literally everything, was going exactly right. The fish were parked in all the places they should be, and even in a few they shouldn't. The streamers were working like catnip – it didn't matter what color, size, or shape. And then, as the day went on, we even got the bugs – isos, drakes, olives, and sulphurs – in waves. Rising rings dotted every inch of the slick surface and the fish fed like they hadn't had a decent meal in weeks. We were catching trout in quantities that soon became silly. Browns, brookies, and 'bows – calling our shots – one after another after another. I couldn't remember a day like it on this water. Ever.

But outings like this are dangerous. They make you cocky. They turn you greedy. They quickly cause you to forget past failures and flippantly consider inflated mortgages for riverside residences you can't come close to affording. I was growing concerned, knowing that the river keeps a tidy balance sheet, and for every day like this she gives, you earn six fishless outings in return. But we pushed those thoughts aside and soaked up every single scrap of luck we could; we'd worry about the tab later. From put-in to take-out the fishing was so darn spectacular we never even stopped to eat, drink, or eliminate our morning coffee – afraid of missing a single second of it.

Euphoria probably isn't a word non-anglers would associate with fishing, but this day had produced the most pure state of bliss I can describe. Nirvana might come closer. Not the alternative grunge band from the early '90s, but that Buddhist state of perfect happiness. Today everything was right with the river, with us, and with the world. And that is the condition we found ourselves in as we gleefully glided up to our take out; flush with excitement and brimming over with optimism.

At the ramp a GORE-TEX-clad stranger surveyed water. "How was the fishing?", he queried in an unassuming accent I wasn't quite able to place.

"As good as it's been in a long, long time," I replied, still warmed by the cocktail of success we'd just consumed.

The stranger, as it turned out, was named Bruce. Bruce enjoyed fly fishing, called Massachusetts home, and studied watersheds for the USDA. He was in Michigan for a conference, and drove here specifically so he could tack on a few days at the end to chase after trout. Our kind of guy.

Bruce was staying for a couple more nights over in Grayling, and asked if we knew any good spots he might jump in and wade. We shared a few, but on days like today most any spot will do, I said, waving my arm across the expanse of river where five fish were actively feeding within sight of the boat, as if I could somehow claim personal responsibility for it.

Jason and I were heading back to Koz's place to meet up with the rest of our buddies and my oldest son, Kyle, and told Bruce he was welcome to join if he'd like. He could even stay for dinner if he didn't have plans. He thanked us, but politely declined. We exchanged numbers anyway, and let him know we'd have an open seat in one of the boats tomorrow if he wanted to try something different. He said he'd think about it, but seemed unsure; we were, after all, two fish-giddy strangers in a strange state in the middle of mostly nowhere and it was probably difficult to discern exactly what "trying something different" meant in these parts.

Back at the cabin Geoff and Koz had already slunk out for an evening wading session when Kyle rolled in. There were still a couple hours of fishable light left in the day, and we knew a short float through juicy water just down the way. It might make sense to give it a try, we told him, because tomorrow it's likely going to be time to settle accounts with the river. He quickly agreed, and we rushed off.

Two fly anglers wearing blue fishing from a drift boat

In true testament to the day we'd experienced, Jason and I already had our fill of fishing (at least for the moment) so Kyle took the front, Jason jumped on the sticks, and I manned the back – kind of fishing, kind of sipping a drink, kind of napping, but mostly just basting in the juices of a perfect evening – made even better now that my son had joined the group.

The air had cooled, there were fewer bugs, and only sporadic rising fish, so Kyle switched to a streamer and teased promising hides with a six-weight. A half hour in and we'd moved a few good ones, but the action was not nearly as steady as it had been earlier in the day. I was disappointed that he may have missed the main course and only shown up when it was time to pay the dinner bill. I really wanted him to get into something substantial – he'd been difficult to wrangle out on the water since moving back from Montana. Michigan fishing just isn't the same after four years casting in Big Sky Country.

Then, just like that, out in front of the boat, his rod folded in half – pulsing hard as the unknown leviathan dove for deep water. "Good fish!", he managed, while line ripped off the reel. The fish was pulling with purpose and trying to muscle its way into wooded cover. Kyle kept him out, but had all he could handle with whatever was on the other end. He was keeping good side pressure, playing his opponent and gaining some ground, when the trout decided to bolt directly upstream. I grabbed the net and the boy attempted to pull the fish close, but, seeing the boat, shot off again, back down into the dark hole. After a sizzling back-and-forth battle, Kyle finally brought the demon boat-side and Jason scooped him in a splash. From my seat in the back I still couldn't get eyes on the contents of the net, but I could see Jason's face, and it certainly reinforced Kyle's "good fish" proclamation. A golden 22-inch exclamation point had just been added to the best day of fishing I could remember.

fly fisherman in a blue shirt holding a trophy brown trout

It was a long night by the time we got back to the cabin, grilled up the brats, mixed a few cocktails, and traded stories, so we were all a little slow to get going the next morning. It was difficult to imagine we'd get dealt another hand like yesterday's, and we still hadn't come by the courage to look over the tab we'd racked up on our bender, so we were taking our time again. Geoff needed to leave by 10, and the morning found us casually sipping coffee on the deck and taking a later breakfast - elk sausage, eggs, toast, and aspirin.

After our meal we milled around, watching the river, sorting gear, loading coolers, consulting maps, debating floats, and checking the forecast. We had rain on the way. Four-to-five hours worth. No worries, we could start with streamers and maybe we'd get some top-water action when things cleared up about half way through.

Two anglers in green jackets looking at a map on a phone

My phone buzzed – it was a text from Bruce. Strangers or not, he'd decided to take us up on the float offer. I sent him a pin for our launch and told him to meet us in an hour. And bring rain gear, it was going to be a long day and we were expecting weather.

By the time we were ready to put in, the sky had darkened substantially and the river showed heavy stain. We decided Jason and Kyle would take the lead boat, and Koz, Bruce, and I would follow behind in the second.

Koz, the consummate guide even on his days off, started on the sticks. We sent Bruce to the bow, and I settled in back. It'd been a while since he'd thrown streamers and he'd really only brought gear for dries, Bruce confided, but Koz loaned him one of his rigs, and he was making perfect casts to all the right spots in no time.

We were moving fish again. Right away. Barely into the float we'd already netted the Michigan slam - brown trout, brook trout, and rainbow. Would it be possible to have a repeat of yesterday? I secretly wondered.

It had begun to rain. A steady barrage of drips and drops pinged off our rain gear, pelted the river, and puddled in the drift boat, but we didn't mind. The fishing was good and so was the company.

Bruce had grown up in Massachusetts, where his father was a conservation officer, and spent most of his younger days in the woods and on the water, hunting and fishing. He'd left home and signed on with the Navy, serving in the Gulf War, before attending college in Oregon, where he had logged a lot more time outdoors than in. These days, he and his buddies liked to chase trout and pike in the local rivers, and stripers in the Atlantic – something I'd never done, but desperately wanted to. "You have an open invite any time," Bruce offered.

A brief break in the weather found me up front working a streamer, when my line hit a hard stop and a flash of something gold side profiled then darted off. "Yep!" I think I shouted, though it may have included several additional words of the non-PG variety, as the graphite began to dance. When the fish finally slowed, I got him on the reel and gradually coaxed him over the lip of the net Koz had ready. When he lifted him from the water, I finally laid eyes on one of the most beautifully freckled fish ever to come out of this river. Just a frog hair short of twenty. That was it for me, I was good, and gladly offered my rowing services for the rest of the day.

Fly angler wearing a Simms jacket holding a spotted brown trout

We moved on, attempting to catch up with our friends in front that seemed to have their drifter set on Mario-Andretti mode. Koz took a turn in the bow, and Bruce was casting into a deep outside bend from the stern when he tagged into something that caught him by surprise. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the fish turn – all thirty-some inches of it. Holy Hell! Bruce might have just hooked the biggest brown in Michigan! An anxious battle ensued, the aggressor staying deep and running hard. Closer now, I caught another glimpse. My God! It didn't unfold perfectly but Bruce finally brought the fish within net range and I hefted the heavy northern pike from the water. Not the biggest brown in Michigan, but an amazing specimen that brought our tally up to four species for the day – and we were only half-way through.

The rain had completely silenced and the sun began squeezing through the clouds, so I pushed on in attempt to locate boat number one. Three bends later we finally caught them and decided to break for a late lunch. We'd kept it simple: sandwiches, chips, and candy bars. I passed around the bread, then the cheese, then the mustard, then the cold cuts, Bruce declining the last. "Just cheese for me," he said.

I hadn't taken Bruce for a vegan (not that there's anything wrong with that), so I must have had a confused look on my face. He went on to explain that a dozen or so years back he'd been bitten by a tick and since that time he'd have a severe reaction if he ate meat. I couldn't fathom a punishment so cruel, but Bruce seemed unfazed. I suppose a war-time stint in the Navy, and breaking both arms in an ice-climbing fall and then carrying your kids back down to the car in that condition provides perspective on the seriousness of how one comes by their protein.

We'd hit the riffle section of the river at just the right time, the sun was finally breaking through, and bugs were popping off everywhere. Trout were slurping, sipping, splashing, and gulping with abandon. I pulled off to the side while Koz and Bruce slipped in and began picking them off in rapid succession. I watched lazily from the middle seat, content to put my feet up and nurse a cold cocktail.

Two anglers fly fish in a river, while their friend watches from a drift boat with his feet up

It was difficult to peel them away from eagerly rising fish, but the sun was beginning to sag below the treeline in the west, we still had a couple solid hours in front of us, and we'd once again lost sight of Mario and his sidekick.

Reluctantly we pulled anchor and shoved off. The guys continued to fish, eventually switching back to streamer rods as the river transitioned to deeper, darker water again, the temps cooled, and the bugs slowed. I tried to keep pace, but more fish found their way into the net on a day that just didn't seem to quit. I finally took Bruce up on his offer to spell me on the sticks, so I could throw streamers for the last of the float.

Three casts and I was hooked up again. It felt like another solid fish and when it flashed in the dark run we immediately knew it was the best trout of the day. I was struggling to bring this brown to heel, and it was dragging us directly into a sweeper on the right. Koz scrambled over to the oars and frantically pulled us into slower, shallow water as I did everything I could to keep the fish pinned. After a long, drawn-out fight he finally found the net, and we collectively breathed a sigh of relief. I gave him a minute to recover, snapped a couple quick pictures, and sent him on his way. High fives all around. Thank you, Bruce.

A fly fisherman in a black jacket holds a large brown trout just out of the water

The fishing clearly wasn't letting up, but we were running out of daylight and had completely lost our friends. I slid back into the middle and pushed out the rest of the way, while my companions sent quick casts to the bank, not wanting the outing to end.

As the sky grew red, the takeout finally came into view and we watched as Jason and Kyle pulled out, boat in tow. We got Koz's drifter trailered, loaded gear, and he drove Bruce and me back to our vehicles waiting at the put in.

A man rowing a drift boat while another fishes from the front as the sun is setting

"Wow, what a day; thanks again for the invite," Bruce said, shaking my hand as we unloaded.

"No, problem man. I'm glad you could join us." I said, turning to leave.

"Hey, Allen," he chuckled, "Don't be a stranger."

I won't, my friend. I won't.

"There are no strangers here; only friends you haven't met yet" - William Butler Yeats

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